On Memorial Day weekend, after hiking Greyrock Mountain we decided a less intensive outing was required. We decided to pack a picnic lunch and head out to the Pawnee Buttes in northeastern Colorado. I have been wanting to return to Pawnee Buttes for a while now. The last time I was there was during the summer over 6 years ago. It was so hot then that we did not even get out of the car. This trip was much cooler and very damp, part of our overall dreary holiday.
What made this trip special is that we visited the Cedar Creek Wind Farm through an acquaintance, Jim Sturrock, of one of my friends. Jim owns a ranch in northeastern Colorado upon which sits part of the Chalk Bluffs, an escarpment that spans from Logan County in the south to the Wyoming border. Not only did he take us out onto his land, but he shared with us tales of nesting raptors, rapacious investment bankers, and the perils of being a bird surrounded by spinning blades.
First, a little bit about the area. The Chalk Bluffs expose many different rock formations, the most prominent being the Ogallala Formation. This formation's claim to fame is as the host of one of the Earth's largest aquifers, which spans a large chunk of the Central U.S. The bluffs are protected from fire and are therefore home to plants that one would normally see farther west in the Rocky Mountains. On Jim's land, the most prominent was the Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis). In the mountains, this pine often marks treeline but here they were growing quite comfortably at a much lower altitude. The bluffs are quite visible as one approaches from the west, and it was obvious why this area was chosen for a wind farm. The bluffs extend for such a distance and rise several hundred feet above the surrounding area. A Utopian idea right? Well....
I slowed down the shutter speed to give you an idea of the spinning blades. When you see them in photos they are stationary and this is very deceiving. The whir of the blades is actually quite loud.
There are always two sides to every story, and the wind power industry is no exception. You are undoubtedly familiar with the advantages of wind energy. It is renewable, reduces our dependence on totalitarian regimes, and makes us all feel warm and fuzzy. There is a black side to being green, however, that one should consider in the overall equation. Every form of energy comes with a price.
Wind, the seemingly most benign of the renewables, is deadly to large birds. This seems counter intuitive when you stand in a wind farm. There is a large distance between each turbine and the blades seem to turn very slowly. Jim had us stand to the side of a turbine though and look up at the spinning blades. From that perspective, the blades appear to be spinning much faster, and you can see the tip of the blade. This tip is thinner than the main blade and slightly curved. It is very difficult to see. Jim said large birds do not see this tip and are easily knocked out of the sky. When found, they have no obvious injuries, they are just dead. Jim's land includes the edge of the Chalk Bluffs where many raptors breed. In the short segment we saw, there was a Golden Eagle's nest as well as the nests of several Prairie Falcons. Putting turbines right near these breeding areas makes a dangerous situation worse.
The tale is dark as well for the land owners coerced into putting wind farms on their land. It is true that some owners willingly allow wind turbines on their land. They do get royalties, which can be a welcome source of income in hard times. Saying no, was not an option, however, according to Jim. It only took the briefest threat of eminent domain from the Australian bankers funding the project to make Jim realize he would have no choice. Still, Jim is quite proud that he was the last hold out and negotiated many concessions from the company before he caved. You might be surprised at what he fought so hard for. It was not extra money that he wanted but better ways to protect the birds. He arm twisted the company into moving the turbines back from the edge of the cliffs and into putting spikes on the electrical towers to deter raptor perching. Ranchers and farmers often get a bad rap from environmentalists. I can tell you that at least in Jim's case, that is pure bunk. Every decision Jim makes, and he told us all about his operation, was focused on protecting the land. The story does not end here.
The turbines have been built, but that is not the end of Jim's woes. The company was supposed to till the soil around the turbines so that it could be used to grow the native grasses Jim's cattle feed on. To date, the company has not done this and much of Jim's land might as well be paved with asphalt because that is all it is good for. The fact that the original investment company, based in Australia, went under during the recent financial crisis, does not help. The wind farm has been sold and who to sue is problematic. As with most things in this world, it is the lawyers who are benefiting the most from all this.
I would like to thank Jim for allowing us to wander around on his land, and for his stories. I would like to dispel another myth about ranchers. These folks are not provincial yokels. These men and women are savvy financiers who love their land and their profession. Listen carefully to their tales, they have much to tell. It was unfortunate that we had a date with a picnic basket and the Buttes, because I would have loved to have spent more time exploring the cliffs on Jim's land. It is a beautiful area with expansive views of the western plains. It was filled with pines, rocks, and wildflowers.
Next up, our picnic at the Pawnee Buttes.